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THE GREEN MAN OF FINGEST

 

green man signONE of the more intriguing of England's ghosts is the Green Forester of Fingest who, according to the available written sources, was the ghost of a 14th Century bishop.

 Until 1163, Fingest in Buckinghamshire was adminstered by St Alban's Abbey, but then it was granted to the bishops of Lincoln, some of whom stayed at Fingest when visiting the local parishes with their diocese. There was a palace in the grounds of the present Fingest Manor House. An 18th Century history of Fingest in the Browne-Willis manuscript, recording excavations on the site, says it was "of large extent". How large is uncertain as the term palace simply designated a dwelling for a bishop.

 The manuscript also gives a description of the circumstnaces giving rise to the haunting. Among the bishops who stayed at Fingest was Henry Burghersh, who came there in 1321. Some 20 years later he laid out a new park and was granted "free Warren" or hunting rights, in his Manor of Fingest. At the same time he was granted a licence to "impark 300 acres of land" enjoining the woodland which he already controlled. There was a snag: this was common land used by the villagers. Fuller, in his 17th Century church history speaks of their seeing "their own beef and mutton being turned into the bishop's venison".

 Enormous hardship resulted. It has been conjectured that there were around 60 families there in medieval times and the Tax Returns for 1341 state that because of the extension of the park, only 30 virgates of land (a little over 100 acres) had been left for the commoners.

 The bishop not surprisingly, had "many a bitter curse in his lifetime and after his death". At some time after his death, in Gaunt, at the end of 1343, he appeared as the now familiar ghost.

 The Browne-Willis version is that he appeared to a "certain person who had been one of his squires, dressed as a keeper in a short green coat with his bow, quiver of arrows and horn by his side". He said that he had offended God and injured the poor by his acitons, and was doomed to be the keeper of the park until it was opened up again.

 He entreated his squire to contact the canons and arrange to have this done. Subsequently, a certain Mr Batchelor "caused the banks and pales forthwith to be thrown down and the ditches to be filled up again". After which the ghost was allegedly laid.

 Thomas Delafield, who was at one time the schoolmaster at Stokenchurch, and author of a manuscript entitled An essay towards an account of Fingest mentions a similar story. He claimed that "traces of high banks and a deep ditch now known as the Park Ditch" were still to be seen. This was in 1756.

 One of the problems at this late stage is to determine exactly where the bishop's park was. He originally asked for three hundred acres to "add to his wood". As the parish of Fingest began at the church (that is on the land on the south side of the modern raod, where the Chequers Inn stands, was in Hambleden Parish) it might be conjectured that he already had Hanger Wood, and possibly also Mill Hanging Wood, on either side of the valley running north, and then was granted the whole valley floor between them, which would be approximately 300 acres. It would give his land a nicely rounded boundary, and would also give him, of course, some very exciting hunting, if the deer were pursued from one steep slope to the other across the valley.

 This would put the boundary of his part up the eastern edge of Hanger Wood to within sight of St Mary Le Moor Church at Cadmore End, westward across the fields to just south of Harecramp Farm. (There is a very distinct ridge across the field just south of Pound Farm, and it would be satisfying to know whether this is a remnant of the original bank and ditch).

 It then continues up the bridle path to the edge of the grounds of Ibstone House, and finally south eastward down the steep his past Cobstone Mill. Other than across the ridged field by Pound Farm, this route is a public thoroughfare and affords commanding views of the village from several points. 

And what is to be made of the ghost? If the only accounts were thsoe of Fuller and Browne-Willis then it would be just another story of a successful exorcism, but other dimensions can be added from other sources. In the Records of Bucks for 1902, John Parker concludes that the Thomas Fuller version suffered at the hands of the Church. The story may have been invented or, at best, that the original was adapted to hammer home the message that true repentance is essential for forgiveness. If there has been tampering with it, one is left either with a ghost which was not that of the bishop, or with a ghost which was not laid at all - or even both.

 The suggestion that the ghost was not laid is backed up by an article on Fingest in the Reading Mercury of July 1898. It mentions almost in passing the tradition of Bishop Burghersh's ghost said to appear in the churchyard in keeper's dress, begging wayfarers to bring an end to its encroachments on the common land, as he could not rest in his grave until the land had been restored to the villagers. There have actually been rumours of more recent sightings, though the ghost does not always dress quite like the keeper. In one version he is wearing a pointed hat; in another a cloak.

 So could John Parker have been right when he said that the legend had been "adapted"? Was the figure seen in parka nd churchyard less the ghost of a particular individual and more that of an elemental and primitive figure? The tradition of figures like the English Jack-in-the-Green is almost universal. As a supernatural being, the Lord of the Forest, occurs even in Chinese mythology. For the Celts he was the horned god Cernunnos, who in the guise of a giant Lord of the Forest, turns up in an early Welsh story.

 It was comon Church practice to assimilate pagan beliefs and deities as an effective way of neutralising them. And what better way of doing so than converting a god into a repentant bishop!

 Daphne Phillips

(I would like to thank Mr Robert Taylor, Mrs Ursula Ryland and especially Professor John Holborow, for helping me with my research)